Monday, August 31, 2009

A meditation on a funeral

There is an acritude in the comments occasioned by Senator Kennedy's death and funerals among good Catholics that requires a few words.

Edward Kennedy, Ted, was of Irish descent, and, as such, was catholic. We could ask: was he a good catholic? Hard to answer, for two sets of reasons.

First, because to answer such a question would mean to pass a judgment on a whole life story. In the case of Ted Kennedy, being he a senator, this life story is private and public. After the loss of his brothers, his life was marked by the nasty accident of 1968 at Chappaquiddick, when he was probably responsible for the death of a girl. He succeeded in getting legally out of it, but I hope, for his soul, that he confessed his guilt with a priest. Publicly, that thing tainted all his subsequent political career, keeping him away from the presidency.

But more than forty years have gone by since then, other forty years of public life as senator, which equally require a judgment that I am sure is not easy. I don't especially recognize myself in his political side, mainly because of the changes this has undergone in these forty years, that make today's issues quite different from those of the Sixties, which saw the beginning of Ted Kennedy career, fighting on the side of his brothers for civil rights that were really such.

The Sixties: they bring me to the other set of reasons that make difficult to answer the question whether he was a good catholic.

We all remember when Ted's brother John was elected, first catholic in the history of the United States, and how this thing aroused suspicions that he had to assuage. He was asked how he would choose, in case of a discrepancy between the demands of the Church and those of his office as President of the USA. His answer was quite simple: he would act always in the interest of the United States, meaning, because no such a discrepancy were possible.

How much has changed since then, alas, in the States as well as in the Catholic Church! We are no longer sure of what it means to be either a good American, or a good Catholic.

I leave aside what pertains to being a good American. I hinted to the divisions concerning this in a previous post (for a more detailed discussion of the idea of America, we'll have to wait for Lazy Disciple's book, to be published in a near future). So I'll stay with the question of the "good catholic".

Many good Catholics are angry at Ted Kennedy for supporting the pro-choice policy of his party. I can't blame them, because, whether he really supported it or not, he didn't take a public stand against it, as they demand.

Of course, the Church is definitely against abortion, and to support it is to put oneself out of it. However, with failure to take a stand against it, we enter into an area where since the Sixties ideas got all blurred: even among theologians and prelates, leave alone a poor politician.

Just in these days I have been reading a very interesting book on the Vatican II and its aftermath. I'll have eventually to return on this, and try some considerations on what the Sixties have been in general, in the Church and out of her. Now, keeping apart the Council from its aftermath, I must say that the latter has been literally diabolic: meaning, according to the etymology of the word, divisive.

Catholics split in (at least) two, mainly on the question of the relation of Church and State.

In traditional catholic doctrine it had been maintained, to mediate between the meta-political teaching of the Church, addressing all people to announce them their unity in the salvation brought by Christ, and the political reality of the particular States in which human societies organize themselves, the notion of natural law. By way of this, it was possible, not only to educate people to Christ, but also to enclose in the same polity people who don't believe in him. The same tradition of natural law was at the origin of the United States of America, clearly to be read in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. But the Church as well as the State were swept by the wind of the Sixties. The Supreme Court wounded the tradition on which America was founded with the infamous Roe versus Wade, leaving as only basis of civil life consensus, always susceptible to change. But even the Church didn't appear any more as a unitary ground of stability.

Unanimity on the notion of natural law got lost, and, as far as the constitution of the polity is concerned, many Catholics thought that they could not bring their religious ideas to bear on a legislation destined not only to "believers", but also to "not believers".

Often in the name of a purer faith, less compromised with established politics, fideism became the thing of the day, and a large party in the Church demised its traditional reasoning ways.

Good Catholics have to follow the example of our beloved Benedict XVI, with his constant invitation to the use of reason, to which Christ himself, as Logos incarnate, has educated us. To use it, I say, first of all among us inside the same Church. And this cannot be done without mellowing the acritude that even our love of truth can bring about in the midst of dissenting positions. Because it would take us away from the very Christian truth we want to defend.

So let's have mercy, and pray for the soul of a poor politician.


James H said...

I think your two camps astatement id right. It is truly unfortunate that the implementation of Vatican II happened when so much change was occuring and the Chruch was under attack on some many different fronts in so many different places

As to Kennedy this something that is often missed. Kennedy did more than just vote for abortion rights. It attacked ina vicious manner those in the poltical square at times that were pro-life. One would have thought because we were trying to live out our Christian vocation in the public square we were a huge threat to the republic

Lazy Disciple said...

Dear James,

Awhile back, with regard the the Council and the "two camps" idea, I offered the following reflection in these pages:

[Many commentators have already noted that one of the central elements in the historical backdrop to the present crisis is the Land o'Lakes Statement, which as a matter of fact has led to the often disastrous dilution of the character of Catholic institutions of higher learning. Many of those who have been scandalized by this adulteration of identity have sometimes suggested that Land o'Lakes is the deliberate expression of willful disregard and even contempt for the traditional Catholic educational ethos. I rather believe that it was the result of a sort of inebriation - a spiritual drunkenness that temporarily impeded the signatories' ability to engage in prudential reasoning. While it is true that the truth of Catholic faith will always emerge victorious in open debate conducted by competent and fair-minded interlocutors dedicated to expounding and defending basically reasonable, though apparently conflicting positions, it is also true that no such conditions obtained in the 2nd half of the 20th century. The spirit of courage and forthrightness to which the Council encouraged Catholics in their engagement with Modernity was the spirit of warriors, and the Council Fathers were preparing their soldiers for a massive sortie, by which they hoped to regain enough ground to form ranks and force a pitched battle, after long years and decades of siege. The university fathers in the US rather understood the Council Fathers to be calling for a cessation of hostilities with a view to a negotiated settlement. On this reading, the problems associated with the statement are in one sense much more serious than those, which might attend a simple exercise in bad faith: prudence must be exercised if it is to be kept, and the longer a person or an institution or a group of institutions persist in folly, the harder it will become for them to recognize it as such. We are now well into the third generation of this great folly - and most of the few intellectual swords that were not beaten prematurely into ploughshares, are by now blunt and oxidized, while those who might yield them are grown soft, and know little but disdain for the necessary martial spirit. On the other hand, the situation has become manifestly untenable, and necessity is a severe, though often the only effective teacher. We are yet in time to put off the folly and return to the fight, if sufficient numbers may be found. The problem is compounded, however, by the fact that those who have been preserved from the worst effects of the folly, are nevertheless unused to the exercise of prudence, and untrained in the needful disciplines - they would form ranks and fight, but do not know how to gain the field]


Lazy Disciple said...


As I understand Sen. Kennedy's record, it is complicated, indeed.

His work for the poor, the marginalized, and the immigrant, is admirable.

To recognize his early and effective leadership in the struggle for civil rights is a matter of justice.

I was particularly troubled by Card. McCarrick's decision to share the portion of his private letter to the Holy Father, in which the Senator discussed his defense of conscience rights. Senator Kennedy was the instigator of the agitation against judge Bork, whose presence on the Court might have led to an overturning of Roe, and therefore, possibly, to an obviation of the need for such protections.

I hope it is clear to you and all the readership that I think Senator Kennedy was on the wrong side of the abortion issue. I do not, however, believe he was in bad faith. Since his ability to harm the cause of life has ceased with the beating of his heart, I think the most charitable course is to say all the good we can, or else pass in silence.

Cardinal McCarrick's decision was disappointing. The damnatio memoriae that came from too many Catholic voices in the public square, were frankly appalling - the worst was probably from the head of the American Life League, who publicly declared that the Senator ought not to receive a Catholic funeral.

Such statements cannot help the struggle for hearts and minds. They do not edify the faithful in the ranks. They may only do harm, and betray a sad lack of charity in the speakers of them.

In short, being on the right side of an issue is not enough - not by half.


Brian said...

Dear Lazy Disciple -

I am sure that Cardinal McCarrick would have to seek permission to read excerpts from this letter. Maybe it was the Vatican's decision for the Cardinal to read the letter. Also, there may be much more in this letter - things that we will never know.

I was not able to watch the complete funeral Mass - but on the evening news I atched Ted Kennedy's grandson? reading the intercessions. One line was about "health care." I thought that was completely inappropriate.

I was also suprised that Cardinal O'Malley, who I have the greatest respect for - I think he is an awesome Cardinal, let the Kennedy children do the eulogies in the Church, after the Mass. In my diocese that is forbidden. Maybe it is allowed in Boston, I don't know.

** Very nice blog!

God bless!


Lazy Disciple said...

Dear Brian,

Many thanks for the kind words about the blog!

I am confident the Cardinal did not breach faith with Pope Benedict in sharing the passages from the letter the Holy Father's secretary wrote (the Cardinal explicitly stated he had discussed the matter with the late Senator's family), and I am sure Cardinal McCarrick did not have to seek permission from the Vatican to read excerpts from the Senator's letter to the Pope.

I was uncomfortable with the intercession about health care, though I do not think it was inappropriate.

I know the archdiocese gave permission (perhaps it was special permission) for the remarks after communion, remarks that were not, technically, eulogies, per the permission granted.

I, too, have great respect for Cardinal O'Malley.